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Watch That Fever 

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When was the last time you lay in bed for nights on end, writhing and groaning away seismic aches and pains while a medium-size puddle of sweat soaked the sheets? When was the last time you seriously considered … your own death?

Americans insist on paying attention to matters with lots of drama but little in terms of consequence. Almost 3,000 were murdered on Sept. 11, but that number comes into focus once we consider the 44,000 lives lost to car accidents every year. Seat belts cost less than Homeland Security. So does quitting smoking and tobacco use, which claims 440,000 lives annually, more people than car accidents, alcohol, AIDS, murder, illegal drugs and suicide combined. According to post-Sept. 11 studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, your odds of dying from heart disease this year are one in 322. What are the odds of your dying this year in an act of bioterrorism? A scant one in 56,424,800. Yet we obsess about terrorism. Our president talks almost incessantly and exclusively about terrorism. A good gym workout, along with more healthy eating habits, would go a lot further than all this fear.

Let’s see who’s talking about terrorism if the rumored bird-flu epidemic ever hits our shores. You may or may not know that this vicious substrain called H5N1 has so far claimed slightly more than 60 lives in Asia. You may or may not know that former Utah Gov. and current Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt receives daily briefings on its path of travel. You may or may not rest comfortable in the knowledge that this strain has yet to spread from person to person, from doorknob to a simple rub of your eyes or nose. But did you know that even the familiar, traditional flu strains kill far more Americans every year than terrorism has yet to manage? Between 36,000 to 40,000 people die of influenza annually. The last great flu epidemic of 1918 claimed 25 million lives in eight short months.

For reasons inexplicable, Americans tolerated a shortage of flu vaccine last year. According to the organizations including the Trust for America’s Health, based in Washington, D.C., we will tolerate a flu vaccine shortage again this year. What may haunt this administration the most is its negligence in stocking enough Tamiflu, the only known treatment for keeping a possible H5N1 epidemic at bay. Corporate conspiracy buffs cried foul when Leavitt said the Bush administration would not suspend patent rules long enough to manufacture a generic form of Tamiflu. But given the drug’s complex manufacturing process, which requires one year’s time to make a full “course,” or dose, it’s doubtful another company beside its current maker, Swiss-based Roche Holding AG, could bring us up to speed.

No, what’s truly outrageous is that the Bush administration has purchased a mere 4.2 million Tamiflu treatments, even as Britain, France, Germany and other nations stock enough treatments to cover 25 percent of their populations, with more orders on the way. “Right now we’d be at the end of the line,” said Kim Elliott, deputy director of Trust for America’s Health. “Every day we wait is a day another country could make a purchase.”

Let us count on luck if we want. Let us also imagine what those who survived Hurricane Katrina might say about trusting our lot to fortune, instead of preparedness. “Imagine a Category 5 viral hurricane, or a 10 on the Richter scale of viral earthquakes across all 50 states,” Elliott said. “I know that thought keeps Leavitt up at night. It certainly keeps me up at night.

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